The Communist Painter: An Interview with Eli Frantzen van Beuren

I recently had the opportunity to visit artist Eli Frantzen van Beuren in her home. Born in Norway and raised in Scandinavia, she began showing professionally at age sixteen and has painted thousands of paintings over the course of her career. She creates paintings on canvas, murals, digital art, advertisements, book and album illustrations, t-shirts, and more. Eli currently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has a husband, two sons, and six dogs.

Nova Vita Manifesto is her mixed media project that combines paintings, computer graphics, and digital art. Last year, the Nova Vita Mural Project donated murals to communities and nonprofit organizations. Eli describes her project with the tagline: “The artist:computer symbiosis represents a new life for artistic expression.”

GADFLY: What does it mean when you say “mixed media”?

EFVB: I’m not exactly sure what it is either, to tell you the truth. I guess it is when you use more than one media, when you mix oils and watercolors, which I am not sure you can actually do. I don’t even know what it means – I think it’s sort of a lack of a better word. But mixed media – I don’t even know what it means. Is that what I describe it as? In the very beginning, I knew I was an artist since I was little. I don’t know why but I just knew. I did really know what it meant because I really wanted to be a librarian, because I like books and the way they smell. It was like with books, I like the look and feel and touch of them, but I guess computers are making that antiquated. I miss the tactile connection that I felt with libraries and I read ebooks and things. It is similar with mixed media. The computer and art. I am just shallow – I don’t remember.

GADFLY: You have a quote on your website about the artist:computer symbiosis and how it gives new forms of expression.

EFVB: You can look at that because that’s a good statement that I don’t know if I can repeat completely, but I remember I was very pleased with how I was finally able to verbalize it. I was trying to say that even in the beginning when I was an artist, and I was professional by the time I was sixteen and I was living in Sweden at the time, and I remember they wanted me to do artist talks and things like that. What can I say? I just paint. It’s not like I give it much thought. In fact, the more I think, the more I become hindered because I think you can over think things. In my case, I have learned now that there is sort of like a source that all artists tap into, like a river of energy or something. But I guess I am just able to tap into it and I feel sort of innocent, because it’s like something moves through me and I am the vehicle or the vessel or whatever.

I hate the word “talent.” I feel like I am more gifted than I am talented because I never really studied art to speak of or anything like that, and I basically always had the same style. You can look at pictures that I did when I was two or three year old – I mean, yes, it is completely different in some ways, but there is a certain way that I put things and I am juxtaposing the colors and the balance – it is like it was always there. I don’t think I have changed that much. Although the ways I am doing it now, even though I still ever so often have to work with real paint – you know, I don’t like sitting by the computer all the time. I still like the process of actually going out there on a scaffold and doing a huge mural. I am about to do a big mural soon in a restaurant – pretty big. And I like that. It’s like a challenge and it gets me out of my house, and that is one of the reasons I started doing them. Because I wanted to, and I was curious to see what it would be like.

And I never sketch. I just go straight on. It just comes out and tells me what to do. It’s sort of: Put some here and then I need some over there. Here’s pink there – and it needs some there, and it is like a balance. It really does tell me what to do.

GADFLY: The murals that you’re talking about, would that be Nova Vita Manifesto?

EFVB: Well some of them are, some of them are. I donate most of my murals. But if someone was to pay me a shitload of money… I am happy to give them away because I work really fast and I really think art should be for the people. You know, I am sort of a communist painter – I don’t believe in the elite and this is why I am not in the system as much, because I don’t like it. I don’t like that art has become something for the very rich basically and, you know, so what the poor people get is like Velvet Elvis, which is art too, and crying clowns or some of that newly banal art that became sort of associated with the working class in a way. But I find it is very insulting because I think art should be seen. I feel in my case that I was given a gift and I think it is my duty to share. That’s why I have never become economically solid with my art, because even when I was younger and struggling and did live off my art, I wasn’t really interested in that. I know I’m probably a little dumb because I probably could have been, shall we say, more commercial. I do a lot of graphics on the computer that nobody knows about, like advertisements, t-shirts, invitations, posters, and I love it. I love doing any of that stuff.

But the computer art or whatever you want to call it or digital art – I am not even sure what the correct name is but that’s why I came up with Nova Vita Manifesto because it manifests itself. You know what I mean. It’s there but you have to somehow capture it. Because if you don’t print it out, yeah it’s there; you can see it on the computer but it doesn’t become something until you can touch it. I find it fascinating. For example, I can create something on the computer, then I send this stuff out and this company sends it back to me. I can order it in any size or, depending on the pixel issue and the quality, it can be a whole wall.

And it is fascinating to me through the Nova Vita project last year, I think I donated two murals. One was for the free clinic – I believe in doing things for people that do good things for people – and then I did one for the Adult Learning Center. I have always given my art away, even when I was young. I would sell it sort of like the Robinhood of painters – if I think you have a lot of money, well, then I guess you can afford to pay what I want. If I don’t think you have a lot of money but would really love it, either I give it to you or, people don’t like that because they are proud and want to buy it, I will give them some nominal fee.

GADFLY: Is there a particular reason you like to do murals on a large scale?

EFVB: I am not sure if there is a particular reason. I guess I just love doing the murals because it gives me, you know, sort of like I do so many small things or used to do so many small things – I guess I somehow enjoy the size. It gives you a different perspective. It shows me what I am capable of and it also is a challenge because, as I said, I never sketch. When I’ve been called to do murals a couple of times, they basically had to have a meeting about having a meeting about having a meeting whether I can give them a sketch and I finally said, “If you don’t trust what I am capable of then I can’t prove it, but I don’t sketch.” Because I don’t know what I am going to do. I am sure I could do it that way if I really had to, but it would be torture for me because that is not how my brain works. I can sit here and paint you perfectly and sketch you – I can do that kind of art in my sleep, but that’s not what my brain wants to do. Sometimes I look at the portrait artists and I get jealous and think this is what I should be doing – sketching.

I wouldn’t say that my art is very complicated, but it is very, I would say it is intuitive because it is fascinating.  Sometimes someone will call me and say they want a painting for their living room or whatever. Sometimes I go and look at the living room, but most of the time I don’t. And sometimes these are people I don’t even know and I say, okay, fine, I will make you something. Maybe I will ask for a clue or the color scheme or something like that, but most of the time I don’t even get anything. So I just do something and when I bring the painting over it’s like it was made for the place. It’s almost like this strange – I can’t put my finger on what it is that makes me have this talent or gift and not someone else. I don’t know where it comes from.

GADFLY: What made you decide to pursue art? Were there any artists that influenced you?

EFVB: I can see where I was influenced by my aunt, and that maybe you are born with certain genes that are geared that way. But I also write, I sing, I can do the theater, and I can do any of the arts. I wanted to be an actress for a while when I was younger. I was in the musicals in school and stuff like that. I always had the lead – I was Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ, Superstar, things like that. Then I moved to New York City and everybody I met was somebody who wanted to be an actor or an actress, and there were waiters and waitresses literally waiting for their success. I could see the rejection they had to go through all the time, and back then we didn’t have the computers. They all had these black and white 8 by-whatever-it-is photos, and I thought, “I don’t want to do that.” I don’t want to walk around with my photo and be told I am too short or my nose is too weird. I don’t think I could deal with that kind of rejection and I don’t need instant gratification, like you would get on stage.

So I chose to concentrate on my art and decided that I don’t have to be judged by who I am. I want to be judged by my work. This is the first interview I have done in years because I don’t want to be talking about myself. I mean, I can sell paintings every day if I want to, but for some reason I just can’t keep giving them away. I realize that, but I think that is mainly what I am going to end up doing unless I fall on really tough times. I like giving it away, that is what gives me the most gratification, and I hate openings. I hate being there, I hate talking to people about my art and, “What were you thinking about when you were doing this or that?” I am like, “Why, I need to pay my phone bill.” When I was younger, it wasn’t like I could trade a painting for my phone bill, but if the bill was $37.10, I could sell the painting to somebody for $40. I lived like that for many years, bartering, and I was an illegal alien so I had to live under the radar. I did get my green card in 1987 through Reagan, through the bill he passed that all illegal aliens that had been here before January 1982 could stay, and I was one of them.

Well, anyway. I feel like I have had many lives when I think about myself young in New York City and I think of myself as young and sweet and didn’t know anybody. Sort of a cat with nine lives. So anyway, what else do you want to talk about?

GADFLY: Did you grow up in the arts?

EFVB: No, not really. I grew up in Sweden and we had religious pictures, usually of God and saints and stuff like that. It is very similar to Greek Orthodox. Anyway, there were a lot of those around, not that my family was particularly religious by any means, although I started first grade in Sweden where church and state were not so separate yet so we had Christianity as a subject in school. So whether you wanted to go to a religious school or not, it was very homogenous in Sweden and Norway. There were no Black people to speak of, there were no Jews that I knew. I knew a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses but the church was basically Protestant. Everybody was the same, I lived in a small place. So religion shaped me, definitely; gave me a real healthy fear. I remember going to Sunday School when I was six and I went – this has nothing to do with my art – but I remember they threw Daniel to the lions and I thought, Well fuck this. I am not going back. What kind of a god is this? Why would he do this?

But I always questioned things. At an early age, I didn’t realize that I was very good at seeing the big picture even then and I saw more than I could probably understand, but I always look behind things and under things and, forensically speaking, I saw more than most people. And I didn’t know – I thought everybody saw what I saw. I am a little psychic, too, and I just thought that everybody was like me so it was sort of hard. Now that I know who I am, I can embrace that. But growing up I am thinking, “Gosh, doesn’t everybody think this way? To me it is obvious.”

I wouldn’t call myself some amazing medium or anything, but I am very sensitive to people’s feelings and I can read people really well, and I think my art falls into this same vein or category or stream. It is just something that comes to me; I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery to me to this day how I look at the stuff I have done years ago or I go to the places where they shoot murals and I am like, “Wow, I did that?” I get a distance from it because it is almost like giving birth in a way. Your child is your child but you can’t tell them what to do after a certain extent. They are their own person and I feel that way about my art. Once it’s gone, it’s its own thing. It has nothing to do with me almost. It’s over and done with, and I don’t get sentimental. I hang on to certain pieces because I want my children to have some things that are my favorites. There are pieces of my stuff that I can’t stand, and other people go “Wow! That is the most amazing thing!” and I go “Yuck!” Those are the ones that I sometimes give away. So they don’t know they got a piece of shit, they think it’s great. I am just kidding, but that’s how you see people’s tastes are obviously different.

GADFLY: One of the quotes on your website says, “It is not so much what I do, but what you see.”

EFVB: And that’s the truth because I really can’t explain it. Sure, I mean, I can tell you sometimes I remember what I did when I did a certain painting. It’s like a recording of a certain moment that has nothing to do with the painting necessarily except for the content. I can look at a certain painting and look at a certain corner and think, “Oh yeah, I remember I was watching a mystery on PBS.” You know, it’s weird. I get this energy sometimes when I am going through certain things in my life and uncertainty and I am very anxious by nature anyway. So, I knit, I crochet, I write, I paint, I cook. Like my painting, I don’t know the recipe, it just sort of happens. So, I am really innocent of the whole process but at some point you have to take responsibility for your own work, and I am trying to.

I feel that as an artist, I have a responsibility. I know my art makes people happy; people get very happy with it because it is very colorful, but I go through periods where I cannot paint at all. There is nothing there, it’s like I’m empty. I always can if somebody says I need a painting by a certain date – I always will even though I feel empty. I will somehow pull it out of my ass. My husband told me once that I had told him that I shit art – you can quote me on that, I don’t care. But I think, again, I am an artist and I do take it seriously and I am grateful for what I have been given, but that makes me feel I should give back.

GADFLY: Is there a message you want to convey with your art? Something you want people to understand?

EFVB: Really, if you wanted to try to condense all this crap into something, I don’t know – if I had a tombstone and had to write something like my own obituary, what would I say? Something like, “She did what she could.” It’s not exactly like I have an ulterior motive with my art. I don’t. It makes me happy – not always – but when I see it later, I feel proud. That shows you the distance I have between the process and that I am actually doing it. You should see me do a mural – it takes me no time at all. It is like automatic painting or something. Next thing you know, there is this thing that has its own life, and then I leave and it is still standing there. It still has its own life. I have done so many murals and in so many places in different cities: Europe, Virginia, New York. But I do remember each and every one of them, most of the time, but I do get a distance from it. You sort of have to because it is such a big part of myself that I put out there for everybody to look at and criticize and say whatever they want. When I gave these murals away when I was younger, I sort of craved the attention more and liked for people to know that I did this. Now, I don’t care if anybody ever mentions my name. It is the art that is important to me. I mean, I would be happy to lend my name to anything if there is a good cause behind it. It’s a bigger part of me – it’s who I am, and I can see it in everything I do. The way I cook, the way I set a table. And to me, it is just being me. I don’t try to be artistic.

I taught an art class at a university once, just for a favor for the professor who was a friend of mine. I had no education in art really, and she said I could just fill in. This was probably ten or fifteen years ago. I took a piece of white paper and took magic markers or a sharpie or something and did a swirl, just doodled. I copied it so each student had one and then I said, make something from this. This is your base, you have to incorporate it somehow, and I got thirty different paintings. So I think sometimes all people need is a “Go a-head, it is okay to do this.” Most people don’t know how to give themselves that, it is a scary thing, because it is like free-falling and then you will know what people really think. I wanted to please. I didn’t want to do bad work but I never really cared what people thought because I knew it came from the heart and I knew it was good. I had faith in what I did. I could tell – I knew I was a good artist always.

GADFLY: You’ve been a professional artist since age 16. Is there any advice you would give a young artist or writer?

EFVB: Well, the thing is, it is hard for me to say because if they have a gift like mine, it will take over. You can’t push it, though – I would say go with it. I have done all kinds of things, but I would say: Don’t be afraid. That is the best advice I can give because the moment you start comparing yourself to other people and think of “no, this is no good” or “not good enough” – just go for it. And today with the media that we have you can just press a button and send six thousand people an email with a link to your website or something like that. You would have to walk around with slides to these galleries with these snobby gay guys who used to sit – Hello, who are you? – that kind of thing. It’s like fuck it, I am not going to do that. Don’t be afraid because you can reach people in a way that I couldn’t.

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